TURN to that section on wigs in Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life, and you’d get an insight to the term bigwig. I was hoping my Oxford would reveal the etymology of the word, but all I got was this:
bigwig (n) informal
an important person, usually in a particular sphere. Also called big wheel.
Enter Bryson, the prolific Anglo-American travel writer, who has charmed us with books like A History of Almost Everything and A Walk in the Woods. He takes us to a time when wigs were all the rage not just with women, but men as well. This was 18th century Europe when “the most irrational fashion act of all was the habit for 150 years of wearing wigs.”
According to Bryson, wigs were so valuable that they were the natural targets of robbers and a common bequest in wills. Of course, wigs came in all styles—bag, bob, campaign, grizzle, with various gradations of braid length and bounce in the curls—but the single defining detail was its size.
“The more substantial the wig,” wrote Bryson, “the higher up the social echelon one stood.” Literally, one would become a bigwig.
There is, however, a price to pay for being a bigwig, wrought not in dollar terms but physical sacrifice. Female wigs, apparently, could rise as much as 75cm, making the average wearer as tall as 2.2m. If you were a bigwig of a lady, you’d end up having to sit on the floor in a carriage to make your way to town for a tea date, or you could simply ride with your head poking out of the window at the risk of being decapitated. Such fatalities have been known.
Oh, the life of a bigwig!
I invite you to write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any word ideas you’d like to share.
- Our previous “Word of the Week”: Nom de Guerre | Next up: Equine
- If you like our “Word of the Week” posts, you might also enjoy our “How to Pronounce It” series.